Punk rock feminist Kathleen Hanna reflects on her career

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | 11:22 p.m. CDT; updated 7:30 a.m. CDT, Thursday, March 21, 2013
Kathleen Hanna speaks to the audience at a Q-and-A session on Wednesday at the Sidney Larson Gallery. Hanna is an advocate for women's rights and was the lead singer for punk rock bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre.

COLUMBIA — Sidney Larson Gallery can comfortably fit 25 chairs.

As the gallery began to fill, audience members dragged benches, stools and folding chairs from neighboring rooms — though some people still had to stand.


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More than 50 people filled the room, which is located in Brown Hall on the Columbia College campus, when Kathleen Hanna, a punk rock musician and feminist activist, held a Q-and-A session there the Wednesday afternoon.

In honor of Women’s History Month, Columbia College hosted several events throughout March, which have included performances and discussions. Several have focused on Riot grrrl, a feminist movement in the underground music community that took place in the 1990s.

In addition to the Q-and-A, Hanna gave a lecture Wednesday evening in Columbia College's Launer Auditorium as part of the Women's History Month series.

Hanna is known for being a member of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and a leader in the Riot grrrl movement.

“Being in a band was a way to advertise feminism,” she said.

Hanna started both the Q-and-A session and the lecture on Wednesday night with a description about her background and experiences in the feminist community. She attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and studied photography.

“In the nineties there was this huge backlash against feminism,” she said. “I saw feminism all around me in the eyes of my friends. We were making photography that dealt with sexism, yet we were being told feminism didn’t exist.”

Hanna said she worked at SafePlace, a rape relief and domestic violence center in Olympia while she lived there.

She also started a support group for sexual assault victims. Three of the girls in the group had been date raped by the same high school football player. All three hated walking past the boy and his friends at school, so they decided to link arms and do it together.

Hanna said the moment the girls made that collective decision was a turning point for her.

“All of a sudden, that room became a space of infinite possibility,” she said. “I wanted to go into rooms that were male dominated and change them.”

The punk rock scene was male dominated, but Hanna started using music as her outlet when working directly with victims of assault became too much for her.

“I used music as a medium because it was something that younger people were interested in,” Hanna said. “Find something you really love to do and mix it with your feminism and people will follow.”

At the Q-and-A session, Columbia College sophomore Jennifer Lampkins, who is studying psychology and sociology, asked Hanna how to involve younger generations of women in the feminist cause.

“It’s hard,” Hanna responded. “I don’t believe that everybody has to call themselves a feminist. I think feminism should be a verb — something that we do, not something that we are.”

Hanna stopped performing with Le Tigre in the early 2000s, but has been busy with other projects since then. Most recently, a documentary about her called “The Punk Singer” debuted at the South by Southwest conference earlier this March.

She is writing music with her latest band, The Julie Ruin, and is involved in the New York cabaret community. At the question and answer session, Hanna said she has grown as a person and changed some of her viewpoints since her time as a member of Bikini Kill.

Mandy Davis, a gender and women’s studies’ major at MU, stumped Hanna during the session.

“What would a conversation between Kathleen Hanna now versus then look like?” she said.

Hanna said she didn't know exactly, and joked that she wished her therapist was there before telling Davis she would have to consider her answer.

“(Hanna in the past) would probably tell me that it’s still okay to be angry, and to express that,” Hanna said. “Anger isn’t a negative emotion in my life. It points me in the direction of things I need to be doing.” 

Supervising editor is Zach Murdock.

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